By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 2, 2001
First Sunday in Advent

Joshua 3:9-17 Crossing the Jordan

Joshua said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God." He said, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap."

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped into the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Revelation 2:8-11 To the angel of the church in Smyrna

"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware! The devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

Apocalypse Explained #700 The symbolism of crossing the Jordan

The miracle of crossing the Jordan symbolizes the introduction of people of faith into the church, and through the church into heaven. In the spiritual sense, the children of Israel mean people of faith, who, after enduring temptations (which are meant by their wanderings in the desert) are brought into the church. The land of Canaan, into which the children of Israel were brought, symbolizes the church, and Jordan symbolizes the first entrance into it. The waters of Jordan symbolize true ideas that introduce people into the church. . . .

However, in this story Jordan and its waters symbolize the false ideas that come from evil and lead to hell, since the land of Canaan was then filled with idol-worshipping nations, which symbolize every kind of evil and falsity that forms hell. . . . And because at that point the waters of Jordan symbolized the false ideas that come from evil, they were divided and kept back so that a pathway could be given to the children of Israel, who represented the church.

Since the Lord alone moves aside and disperses the false ideas that come from the evil of hell; and since the Lord alone brings people of faith into the church and into heaven through divine truth; and because the ark, and the law contained in it, represented the Lord as divine truth, the Lord commanded that the ark should go before the people and lead them. This is why, as soon as the priests who carried the ark dipped their feet into the waters of the Jordan, the waters were divided and flowed away, and the people passed over on dry land.

While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan. (Joshua 3:17)

As we cross over into the period of Advent, which covers four Sundays before Christmas, we come in our Old Testament series to the story of the children of Israel crossing the Jordan into the Holy Land. And just as the birth that we celebrate at Christmas was a miraculous one, so the entry of the Israelites into Canaan took place by a miracle. We are told that as soon as the feet of the priests who were carrying the ark touched the waters of the Jordan River, the waters began to pile up in a heap far upriver, and the whole nation of Israel crossed over on dry ground.

To appreciate the meaning of this crossing, we need to look back in thought to an earlier time that the Israelites crossed a body of water in a similarly miraculous way. After the Ten Plagues, when Moses was leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, Pharaoh sent his army after them to bring this great force of slave laborers to back Egypt. As the Egyptian army approached, the people were sure they were lost, since they were cut off by the Red Sea, and could go no farther without drowning. It was then that Moses, commanded by the Lord, stretched out his staff over the water, and the water parted so that the people could go across on dry land. When they were safely over, and the Egyptian chariots and horsemen tried to follow them, Moses once again stretched out his staff over the waters. This time the waters returned to their place, engulfing the Egyptian army.

Between the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground and the similarly miraculous crossing of the Jordan, there were forty years of wandering in the desert. In that time, everyone who had been an adult of twenty years or older died in the desert--everyone, that is, except for Joshua and Caleb, the two men who had urged the people to trust in God, and to go immediately into Canaan to conquer it. But the people were afraid, and did not listen to Joshua and Caleb. So none of the rest of the adults ever reached the Holy Land. It was their children and grandchildren who followed Joshua across the Jordan.

Yet the older ones among those who crossed the Jordan would have been teenagers and children at the time of the first crossing. They would have remembered the great miracle God worked for them forty years earlier. And of course, the parents would have told the story over and over again to their children who had not been born yet, or were to young to remember. When the Lord once again parted the waters before the Israelites, they knew its significance. Though they were not in danger of immediate defeat by a pursuing army as they had been the last time, they remembered that great deliverance. As they entered their Promised Land, they knew that the Lord was with them to deliver them from their enemies, and to lead them safely forward on paths that normally would have been impassable.

The first time the waters parted before them, the miracle was worked through the staff of Moses. This time, with Joshua issuing the orders, it was the ark of the covenant, containing the Ten Commandments, that channeled the divine power that worked the miracle. As long as the priests carrying the ark stood in the Jordan's riverbed, the waters were held back. As soon as they left the dry waterbed, the waters started flowing again. So not only did Joshua gain honor as the new leader of the Israelites following the death of Moses, but the people saw the great power of the ark, and of the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments, were the most sacred laws of the Israelites, spoken to them by God in a living voice from Mt. Sinai, and also written on the two tables of stone that were the only contents of the ark. They were the very first commandments given by God at Mt. Sinai, and they were the center and soul of the entire Old Testament Law. In a sense, they were the entire Word of God summed up in ten brief statements. For us today, they also represent the Word of God. As they are written, they represent the written Word of God, which we know as the Bible. And in their deeper, spiritual meaning, they represent the Word of God coming alive in us, and directing our lives from within.

It should not be too hard to grasp the meaning of the Ten Commandments going first into the river and causing the waters to stop flowing so that the people could go across on dry land. The Israelites literally "followed the Commandments" into the river: they walked into the river behind the priests carrying the ark, and then continued across the river on the way that the Commandments were directing them to go.

We figuratively "follow the commandments" when we direct our lives according to their teachings. When we do this, we can move through and beyond barriers in our lives that would otherwise be impossible for us to get past. When we do our best to live by the Word of God, doors open to us that would otherwise be closed, and we grow and deepen as human beings in ways that we never would if we insisted on following our own plans and ideas instead of God's.

What does all of this have to do with Advent? What does this have to do with the Lord coming into the world--the event we celebrate at Christmas?

We are told in John 1:14 that "the Word became flesh and lived among us." While the Ten Commandments were the Word of God written on stone tablets, Jesus Christ was the Word of God expressed in the flesh--in a living, human being. And just as the priests carried the ark containing the Ten Commandments into the river, so Jesus went into the river to be baptized by John the Baptist, setting an example for all to follow.

As Christians, we not only have the fixed, written Law of the Ten Commandments, but also the living Law of Jesus Christ to follow. And just as the Ten Commandments brought the Israelites safely through the flood waters of the Jordan, so Jesus Christ can bring us safely through the flood waters that stand in our way as we travel the paths of our lives.

What are these flood waters? Swedenborg tells us that in this story, the waters of Jordan symbolize "the false ideas that come from evil and lead to hell." Hmm. . . . That's pretty abstract. Perhaps an example would help. What's a false idea that comes from evil and leads to hell that might be knocking around in our minds?

How about this: "My own happiness is the most important thing. After all, if I don't look out for #1, who's going to?" Now that's a false idea! The Lord teaches us very plainly that we are to love God above all else, and our neighbor as ourselves. But if we believe that our own happiness is the most important thing--even if we don't actually say it out loud--then we believe we are more important than God and our neighbor. That belief comes from evil: the evil of self-centeredness. And if we follow it, we will eventually find ourselves in hell. Hell is where everyone loves themselves and their own possessions more than they love anyone else. Hell happens when we don't care all that much about others; we care only for our own happiness and pleasure, and if we put others down in order to get it, so much the better! Their loss is our gain. The idea that our own happiness is the most important thing exactly fits Swedenborg's definition of what the Jordan symbolizes when it is used in a negative sense. It is a false idea that comes from evil and leads us into hell.

Now, we may not think that we have this particular false idea in our heads. And perhaps this isn't one of the toughies for some of us. Some of us may put everyone else's happiness first in an unhealthy way, neglecting our own health and well-being. But let's use the example of thinking our own happiness is most important.

When we look at it rationally, it's obvious that this attitude will only lead to trouble. We can easily see that if everyone were to live by this principle, our world would soon fall apart as everyone tried to gain their own pleasure at the expense of everyone else--even stealing and killing if others get in their way. Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of that sort of thing in our world, isn't there? Wherever this attitude reigns, we do see hell on earth: war, exploitation, corruption, conflict, greed, violence, and so on.

It's easy to see the results all around us of people thinking that their own happiness is the most important thing. It is much harder to see that in ourselves. We like to believe that we aren't like everyone else; that we really do care about others as much as we care about ourselves. Yet when push comes to shove, too often we pick the route that seems easiest and most beneficial for ourselves. Too often we don't see--until it is too late--how our words and actions affect the people around us. So we create conflict and discord in our own lives, and get a little taste of hell when all we wanted was a bit of heaven for ourselves.

On our own, we'll always pick the way that seems to bring the most benefit to ourselves. It is the Lord who teaches us not only to love our neighbor as ourselves, but even to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

This is the living Law that can provide a safe passage for us through the deep waters of our own faulty, self-centered attitudes. If we learn even the most simple truths that the Lord teaches us in the Bible, and do our best to follow them day by day, the rivers of false ideas that flow within our minds will give way, and we will pass over on dry land into the land of Canaan--which represents heaven, both hereafter and right here on earth. Amen.

Music: Words of Love
1999 Bruce DeBoer

Photo Courtesy of Corel Gallery

Custom Dings by Set City

Floating Code Courtesy of:

Butterfly tubes courtesy of:
PaintShop Pro